Joanna Harrison on her career and the making of animated classic The Snowman

20 Apr 2017

Joanna Harrison, Co-Director of We're Going On A Bear Hunt [2016] and Storyboard Artist & Animator on The Snowman [1982] talks to Exit 6 contributor Kaylie Finn about breaking into the industry, turning revered texts into short film, and the future of animation.

The 80's! It's the decade that gave us some of the greatest kids' movies of all time: ET, The Land Before Time, and Labyrinth. But it's The Snowman, symphonic, wordless and free from dialogue, which stands above the rest as the hero film of my childhood. With its flicker-style animation and nostalgic flare, it has been a Christmas constant in my family for as long as I can recall - and I'm sure kids of the 90's and 00's might say the same. So, who should I interview for Exit 6? It would have to be Joanna Harrison, co-creator of The Snowman, its sequel The Snowman and the Snowdog, and We're going on a Bear Hunt.

 

I telephone Joanna Harrison on a Thursday morning from Cornwall. "I love Falmouth, I know it well!" she tells me. "So you're looking out at the sea, and I'm looking out at brick houses." She speaks candidly, and with a musicality that never wavers throughout our interview.

“Many years ago when I was at St Martin's School of Art, I was going to study graphic design and illustration. I walked into a room and they were showing an animated film called The Flying Man by George Dunning. The Flying Man, I think I'm right in saying, was the first animated film where the character doesn't have an outline – he's not contained within an outline -  so it's like free painting, basically. I was so utterly transfixed by this film, I thought it was the most wonderful thing ever. I loved it, I loved the way he breathed life into these characters. That was it. I decided I wanted to study animation.”

 

During further study at Goldsmith's College, Harrison (then Fryer) made her own short film: Make Up, which received numerous awards and was accepted into Annecy Festival. Life came full circle shortly after when she joined TV Cartoons (TVC), in London's Charlotte Street, as George Dunning's assistant. Dunning passed away in 1979, but Harrison stayed on at TVC, stepping into the role of animator at the studio. “I was at the very genesis of The Snowman”, she recalls.

Joanna explains how she was tasked with creating a storyboard for The Snowman adaptation with co-animator Hilary Audus. It was the first time Harrison had translated a picture book into film, and both animators knew the existing narrative, by English author Raymond Briggs, wouldn't fill 30 minutes. New sequences were invented to expand the story, including the motorcycle ride, the dressing up scene, and the snowmen party.

 

“We added our own little personal touches. We used Hilary's initials on the number plate of the Triumph motorbike in the film and I put in my grandmother's false teeth, silly things like that. Once we had done our story board, producer John Coates took it to Channel 4, which was next door to us in Charlotte Street. It was the first year Channel 4 had started up and they had a lot of controversial programmes. They wanted something to balance that – they wanted something more gentle. They gave us a hefty chunk of the money for their children's programming to make The Snowman, so that's how we did it all those years ago.”

The Snowman aired on Boxing Day 1982, and was an immediate hit. In-keeping with the simplicity of the original story, the film was told through animation, action and music, scored by Howard Blake. It received an Oscar nomination in 1983, and won a BAFTA award for Best Children's Programme the same year.

 

I asked Joanna about how she tackles the creative process, adapting the vehicle of storytelling from book to screen. 

 

“Making a film is different to making a book. You've got to keep things moving the whole time, you can't suddenly stop. You can't show what people are thinking.”

 

Harrison references 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt', which she co-directed with Robin Shaw at Lupus Films. The classic children's story was originally written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury in 1989. The challenge was to maintain the integrity of Rosen's masterful writing and Oxenbury's illustrative style, whilst creating new sequences that would blend seamlessly into the story.

“First of all, I get to know the book really well. I look for clues in all the drawings. For example, we wanted to enlarge on the characters, so the children – each child needs to have its own particular character, little quirks. Instead of being generic children they become personalities in their own right. How they interact with each other, that's also important.”

 

The attention to detail in the adaptation would be recognised with the Cameo Award for Best Book To TV Adaptation, pipping BBC's The Night Manager no less. 

 

“In the film, I was very keen to reproduce each of the illustrations in the book even if it was just for one second or for a frame, so you think 'ah I recognise that' and then move on to something else.”

 

We move on to talk about the process of developing music to animation. I mistakenly reference Aled Jones as the vocalist behind The Snowman's 'Walking in the Air'.  “No he didn't! What happened is Peter Auty, who is now an opera singer, did the song for The Snowman. The film came and went. It did very well, but then Toys R Us did a commercial using the boy flying with a bear, and that's when they asked Aled Jones. Peter Auty's voice had broken, so then they got Aled Jones to sing the song, and then it was a hit but he never sang the original song. It's very good for pub quizzes,' Joanna tells me.

 

For We're Going on a Bear Hunt, Harrison and Shaw enlisted young composer Stuart Hancock to create the score.

 

'He was very collaborative with us; he would produce some music, then we would then sit and talk about it, and he would go back and change it. Robin, my co-director, and I had a lot to do with that process. I really enjoyed it, I loved it! Then to go to Abbey Road and hear it played by a 50-piece orchestra was amazing. We would tell him what we want – we want English pastoral type music – and he'd do that.

“When I met George Ezra, I told him I wanted a really simple song that you could dance to, but you could feel sad to and have this range of emotions. He came up with this wonderful song. He nailed it first time.”

 

I ask Joanna about her decision to instil moments of melancholy in the films she works on. She jokes: 'Every animated film I've ever worked on there's been death or sadness – the snowman melts!'. In Bear Hunt, the isolation of the bear, and the alluded to death of Rosie's grandpa, adds a layer of emotional complexity.

 

“The final picture of the bear walking back into the cave – Helen Oxenbury based that on a friend who had depression. I knew that and I assumed other people knew it – but he is, he is a sad, old bear.”

 

“I just think it's the truth that you cannot have happiness without sadness. The two things go hand-in-hand. It's just a kind of basic philosophy. I don't think there's anything wrong in tackling these subjects, but I don't think this should be the central theme at all. To me, it was just little asides that added depth to the story, and I have to say Michael loved it. He's encountered sadness in his life – he was very on board. I thought it was a shame that people picked up on that rather than everything else in the film.”

Joanna speaks passionately about animation as an art form, or as she lyrically describes, a need to 'keep the hand of the animator'. With almost 35 years between the creation of The Snowman and We're Going on a Bear Hunt, I was interested to know how technology has impacted the industry, and if CGI special effects alters the creative process.

 

“I love that hand-drawn look so you can see how [the film] was made. I like all the imperfections, I don't like it when it's too perfect. A computer will always try and make it perfect and clean. I think there’s a very fine line in animation where you can lose the magic.”

 

“In the old days, people were chucking paint, doing things with sand and mud and oil paint; it was far more experimental...”

 

Preserving 'the hand of the animator' is not only visually striking; it evokes a sense of yesteryear whilst appealing to new and modern audiences. But how do you create such timeless animation?

 

“You don't want it cluttered with contemporary references, as in a few years time that can make a film seem dated. I prefer to keep a timeless look that would appeal to everyone - from grannies, to parents, to children. The great thing is to keep everything as simple as possible.”

 

“I taught animation for a bit at a boys school. For me, it was extraordinary. These boys, aged 14 to 18, who were probably pretty restless elsewhere in the school, would sit down and do hand-drawn animations. One boy did one which was like 400 drawings, or they did stop motion – utterly fabulous stop motion animations, but they never wanted to do computer animation. They loved what I call 'the hands under the camera'. On the other hand, animation is only a vehicle for telling a story. The most important thing is the story, and then the animation is secondary. No amount of beautiful animation is going to make a bad story good.

 

So if Joanna was granted carte blanche to re-imagine any project, what would she choose?

“That's an easy one. It's my own book,” she laughs. “I did a children's book many years ago called When Mum Turned into a Monster. It's a tricky subject –  although I'm not frightened of tackling tricky subjects –  but I meet children who say 'I was so scared of that book when I was little', but they love it. It did really well, and I would absolutely love to make that into an animation.”

You can find out more about Lupus Films at their website.

 

You can also follow them on Twitter: @LupusFilms

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